Baby Carrots, Jew Mutts & White Shirts: Postcard & Poem from Storahtelling Weekend in West Palm Beach
by Amichai Lau-Lavie
It’s been a while since I’ve visited the Promised Pink Land of Florida, and just got back from a quick weekend trip – enough for a mini tan and taste of the bittersweet reality of Jewish life struggling to survive amid the strip malls, post recession. I led Storahtelling programs at the West Palm Beach Federation HQ to a group of clergy - some delighted for new tools and others suspicious. Later I was warmly welcomed at a Reform temple temporarily housed at an empty JCC and the next day visited a vast 60’s style Conservative Congregation, right out of ‘A Serious Man’. Once again, familiar conversations about the yearning for change but the fear of changing the true and tried and somewhat stale; the dwindling memberships in synagogues, the elders who insist on things as they were; so few youngsters, so little money, even in West Palm Beach. And still – the ones who care and show up, and dress up for each occasion. The weekend fell on the Sabbath of the Ten Commandments, an opportunity to revisit Sinai and what our story is all about – our collective contract – the myth of who we are and who we want to be, today. Postcard from Palm Beach:
1. White Shirt (or the 4th and 5th Commandment )
Friday afternoon, almost sunset: I stand at the window of my room in the Hampton Inn, overlooking a swimming pool with fake roman pillars, and beyond, a parking lot. I’m changing clothes for Shabbat, putting on a white shirt, absent minded, when I notice a guy, with his shirt off, leaning on a car in the back of the parking lot and also dressing. I can’t tell if he’s handsome or not but he’s young and strong and half naked so I look on as he pulls out a white shirt hanging on a hanger from the back of his car and puts it on. Tucks it in, walks away.
I wear white ironed shirts for the Sabbath, religiously, as I have done since childhood, mandated, commanded by my mother. This guy and I, we’re both dressing up for an evening out. He, perhaps as a waiter at the nearby steakhouse, and I off to Temple Israel, to usher in the Sabbath and make a key note speech about the future of the synagogue and Jewish life in the 21st century. I will also address the 10 commandments – this weekend’s Torah Theme. Commandment 4: respect your parents and obey their rules - check. Commandment 5 – remember and honor the Sabbath - check. Thanks anonymous guy in a parking lot for reminding me of the little symbolic details that matter. Later that night, on stage at the Temple I talk about my white shirt - recalling the commandments that my parents handed over. My father’s was to never fear, and to blend in with the crowd, and survive at all costs: The wisdom of a Holocaust Survivor. My mother’s – wear a white shirt on Shabbat. I read a poem by Yehuda Amichai that I remembered at the last minute, goggled on my iphone and quickly translated on a napkin during dinner (scroll down for the full poem). What would it feel like, I ask the congregation, several hundred, mostly older, to hear the commandments of Moses with the voice of our parents? What are the rules and teachings and commandment we each carry in our hearts and memories to guide our own truths and celebrate our own sense of sacred? Temple Israel is currently hosted in an empty ghost town of a JCC – gone bankrupt post Madoff (10th commandment – don’t desire so much). What are the new or renewed ten rules that will get us back on track – ethical, moral, healthy, relevant, sexy, real???
Welcoming the Mutt
Saturday Morning at Temple Torah in Boynton Beach, a Conservative congregation. Capital C. Older crowd, lots of doilies on blue hair-do’s, a handful of children. Janie, a friend, sits next to me wearing a beautiful matching set of prayer shawl and kipa – all her handiwork. She compliments the women and men who walk past wearing other fabulous religious creations and shows me the row of wheelchairs at the back of the sanctuary where tired seniors and their caretakers slowly gather: ‘look – how eager they are to be here. How they need this healing.’ On the vast Bimah, Jerusalem Stone and pink carpeting, a sad cantor with an amazing voice and Sefardic melodies takes my breath away. I later learn that he is of Iranian descent, the uncle of my dear friends Michelle and Galeet Dardashti. I also learn that he was just fired. Maybe that’s why he seemed so sad. The congregation rises and sits, turning pages, again and again, until it’s time for the Torah Service, and the house is full, and I take the stage. Today I am Eli, son of Moses, half Jew. The Torah portion is Yitro – named for the pagan prophet who is father in law to Moses and teacher of how to transmit laws to this newly born nation. He is Eli’s grandfather, and together, according to the narrative in Exodus, the leaders’ not so Hebrew family travels to Mt. Sinai to reunite with Moses on the eve of revelation. I translate, Storah style, the Hebrew verses, speaking as Eliezer son of Moses, in first person, and the congregation is delighted (though one older gentleman, I’m later told, grumbles that it’s a shanda). At some point I turn to them, as Eli, and ask – do you want me here? Should I join you Hebrew people? I am half Jewish only, half breed, a mutt – Am I welcome among you? A teenage girl is not so sure, and challenges me. Others hesitate. It’s a short and charged conversation: do we welcome the others into our homes? Our public lives? I then invite those who want to climb the stairs to the Torah, up Mount Sinai if they feel that it’s time for them to re-examine their personal relation to their people, their story, their covenant. Dozens climb the Bimah. The Ten Commandments are chanted out loud with little drama though everybody rises to the occasion. I wrap up the Storahtelling program with a Talmudic legend that tells of Moses’ great grandchildren who chose to stay Jewish – despite their mixed origin, and went on to become great scholars of Torah. Rabbi Botnick, ruling confidently over his flock, will echo my question in his closing remarks for the morning – what is the role of the modern congregation in answering the difficult questions? How do we explain our religion to the next generation? The spiritual call to action is followed by a plea for funding, and a promise of free parking space for the ‘enhanced donors’. The rabbi even promises, half jokingly, his own parking space for those who donate more. This synagogue, like so many others, is struggling to stay afloat. Recently all clergy took a 20% salary cut. At Kiddush, over the usual coffee cakes and mini cups of grape juice many enthusiastic conversations continue. “I will never look at Torah the same way again” a lovely lady tells me. “My son-in-law is Christian,” another man whispers to me – “I’ve never spoken about it here. But today I did’. I walk out and away into the Florida sunshine, past the vast parking lot and the rabbi’s empty parking space. Another day in the Jewish trenches. Can this model of communal life survive the 21st century?
2. Baby Carrots
This has sort of nothing to do with the weekend but it did ignite my thinking about how the much needed change in our community can happen. Before I go to sleep that night at the Hampton Inn I surf channels and land on a food channel program that tells the history of baby carrots. Who knew (or cared)? Only twenty years ago or so some big carrot farmer in California realized that so much of his produce was not fit for market because of size and such and figured out a way to make the problem into a profit: baby carrots, made from the useless excess non sellable carrots. Crisis became opportunity. The farmers’ grandson now rules over a multimillion empire, baby carrots in every lunch box. What’s the discarded excess in the Jewish education system we are not realizing? What is our crisis that can be turned into opportunity? We know the Hebrew Schools are mostly failing, B’nai Mitzvahs are hollow shells of meaning and Judaic literacy is on the decline. What’s the sweet spot? Where is the opportunity? Go to the where the problem – the useless carrots… that’s where change is waiting to happen. I met folks in Florida who get this – who want to be part of the solution and not perpetuate the problem. More and more are trying and starting to think big picture and systemic change. Let’s face it: Sinai – we got a problem. But can it be overcome? I think so. Creative crowdsourcing, and strategic thinking, brave decisions and risky business – I think we have some great solutions waiting to happen, fast. Sinai. Revisited. 5.0.
I type up the Yehuda Amichai poem, return the rental car, leave the Promised Pink land and head back to the NY cold with a farmer’s tan on my face and a reminder of why I do what I do and how change can happen. One shirt, one baby carrot, one story , one important question at a time.
POEM BY YEHUDA AMICHAI
Translated by Amichai Lau-Lavie
My father was god, but he didn’t know it.
He gave me the Ten Commandments, not with thunder or fury, fire or clouds,
but softly, with love, caresses, kind words.
He added ‘please, please’ and sang the words ‘keep and remember the Sabbath day’ and cried quietly: ‘don’t bear false witness, don’t lie’. He’d cry, and hug me. ‘Don’t steal, don’t lust, don’t kill’.
He’d put his hands on my head like the Yom Kippur blessing. “respect’ he’s say ‘love and live long upon this earth’.
His voice was as white as the hair on his head.
The he turned his face to me, like that last day, when died in my arms, and said: “I want to add two more commandments to the ten. The eleventh: never change. The twelfth: change, change.”
So spoke my father and walked away into his strange distances.